Mainers Celebrate 45th Anniversary of Clean Water Act

For Immediate Release

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Dylan Voorhees 207.462.3221, dylan@nrcm.org

Mainers Celebrate 45th Anniversary of Clean Water Act

Describe Enormous Progress and Serious Threats to Clean Water in Maine.

Lewiston, ME - Today on the banks of the Androscoggin, once labeled the most polluted river in America, a diverse group of Mainers described the importance of the Clean Water Act. The Act became law on October 18, 1972, when Congress voted to override President Nixon’s veto of the bill. This landmark law was a crowning accomplishment for Maine U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, who grew up in Rumford and was riled into action because our rivers were being treated as open sewers. His determination to act resulted in one of the nation’s most important environmental laws. 

“Senator Muskie’s leadership put the nation on a path that brought life back to dead waterways, protected human health, increased recreation opportunities, expanded economic opportunities in riverside communities, improved real-estate property values, and contributed to the quality of life of millions of Americans nationwide. For that, we are enormously grateful,” said NRCM Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann.

Before the Clean Water Act, Maine had no sewage treatment plants. The stench along our polluted waterways depressed real estate values and left retail stores in communities near polluted waters deserted in the summer months. The sulfite-laden air blackened silver products in jewelry stores. The toxic fumes peeled paint off buildings, while the odors, which were noticed 20 miles from the river, sickened people. And when the weather was hot, dissolved oxygen in the river plummeted, killing essentially all fish and wildlife in the Androscoggin, as well as the Kennebec and Penobscot.

“We have come an enormous way since the Clean Water Act became law. Today is a day for celebrating that progress, acknowledging the vital role that Senator Muskie and the state of Maine played in passing the Clean Water Act, and focusing on the threats to clean water that require continued leadership from Maine’s elected officials,” added Pohlmann. 

Bates College Chemistry Professor Walter Lawrence played a significant role in helping Senator Muskie and state leaders understand how polluted our rivers had become. Lawrence produced detailed reports based on daily water samples from hundreds of sampling stations along the Androscoggin. Through the 1960s, Maine’s industrial rivers were classified as Class D, described in state regulations as: “primarily for use in transportation of wastes.”

Although the U.S. House and Senate voted nearly unanimously in 1972 for the Clean Water Act, President Nixon vetoed the bill on October 17, 1972. Veto override votes by the Senate and House occurred on October 17 and 18, 1972, respectively. The Senate voted 52-12 to override, with 36 Senators not voting. The House voted 247-23 to override, and the bill became law.

The Androscoggin and other Maine rivers and lakes are cleaner today than they were 40 years ago thanks to the Clean Water Act, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to force polluting industries and towns to treat waste and sewage before discharging it.

Now, these basic safeguards and other federal laws that protect Maine waters are under attack. Here are a few examples; see attached document for more:

  • Trump’s EPA budget proposed the elimination of non-point source pollution grants, which states like Maine depend on to reduce polluted runoff that includes pesticides, fertilizers, and other nutrients. This type of runoff represents the largest pollution threat to Maine’s lakes. Trump’s EPA budget also proposed deep cuts to state grants for water monitoring, assessment, and management.
  • Scott Pruitt’s EPA is leading an attack on the Clean Water Rule, which extends Clean Water Act protections to smaller waterways, tributaries, and wetlands. One-third of Mainers get their drinking water from sources that rely on small streams protected by this rule.
  • Pruitt is also delaying multiple rules that reduce airborne mercury and other air pollution from power plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin found in Maine’s lakes, rivers, fish, and wildlife, primarily due to power plant pollution from other states. Maine depends on strong federal laws and the EPA to limit pollution coming from other states.

“We urge Senators Collins and King to continue to support strong federal clean water protections, including full funding of the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Pohlmann. “Clean, healthy waterways are vital to our day-to-day lives in Maine. They help ensure safe drinking water, suitable habitat for fish and other wildlife, and recreational opportunities that make Maine a special place in which to live, work, play, and visit.”

For more information about the threats facing Maine’s clean water, see the attached document.

Dick Anderson, a young fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the 1960s, today recalls how polluted the Androscoggin had become. “We paddled the Androscoggin from the New Hampshire border to Brunswick, and it was a revolting task.  Every bit of waste and sewage was dumped into the river. At least seven paper mills were dumping untreated waste into the river, as were tanneries and towns. We traveled through this disgusting mess, and look at it now! We can feel proud today on the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, written and championed by our great Maine Senator, Edmund Muskie.”

Rebecca Swanson Conrad, President and CEO of the Lewiston-Auburn Metro Chamber of Commerce, today described how important the revitalized, cleaner Androscoggin River is for both Lewiston and Auburn. “I marvel at how far we have come over the past 50 years. Look at the investments we’ve made in the Bates Mill, Auburn Riverwalk, and the businesses, hotels, and homes along this majestic river. In the 1960s, we were not considering the environmental impact of the river on our future economy. The Androscoggin was dead, but it has come back to life in no small part because of Senator Muskie and the Clean Water Act. And with that recovery, Lewiston and Auburn have made the river central to our economic future. We are so thankful for the many people, organizations, and elected leaders who helped deliver the great progress that we have seen. It stands as a testament to how important a clean environment is to a healthy economy.”

Lynne Lewis, Elmer W. Campbell Professor of Economics at Bates College, today spoke about the economic benefits that clean water provides to Maine. “The Clean Water Act provides billions of dollars in economic benefits annually, by protecting water that we drink, live near, and fish and play in. For a state like Maine that is literally filled with rivers, lakes, streams, and coastline, clean water provides enormous economic value to our state in the form of reduced health care costs, improved recreational opportunities and tourism, property values, and tax revenues to the state. From my research and that of others, it is clear that clean water significantly increases waterfront property values for both homeowners and businesses. Thriving businesses and community events take place along rivers such as this. These revenue sources did not exist before the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act has resulted in a rebounding of river herring and other sea-run fish, contributing to the health of our Gulf of Maine fisheries. Our lakes contribute an estimated $3.5 billion to Maine’s economy annually, supporting 52,000 jobs, and clean coastal waters support the thousands of lobstering and fishing jobs that deliver landings of more than $700 million annually.”

Natalie Lounsbury, who grew up in Auburn, recalls attending meetings with her mother, Bonnie, where the discussions focused on "color, odor, and foam." Natalie and Bonnie now have a farm along the Androscoggin in Turner and Natalie is also a PhD student in natural resources at the University of New Hampshire. Today Natalie said, “Nearly all water that reaches rivers passes through or over soil.  As we celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and as we continue our efforts to protect Maine’s waters, it's important to support land managers and farmers in implementing practices like cover crops and riparian buffers that help keep our waters clean.”

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The Natural Resources Council of Maine is the leading nonprofit membership organization working statewide for clean air and water; healthy people, wildlife and forests; and clean energy solutions. NRCM harnesses the power of science, the law, and the voices of more than 12,000 supporters to protect the nature of Maine. Visit NRCM online at www.nrcm.org.

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